A remarkable sculpture of a Supermarine Spitfire, dedicated to the brave Polish airmen who fought during World War Two, is providing a real wow factor for everyone who visits The Atkinson in Southport.
The work of art – which is one third of the size of a real Spitfire – was created by world-renowned artist Suhail Shaikh last year.
It was made almost entirely from paper and took an incredible 1,500 hours to build. That was in addition to hundreds of hours of research, plus the trials and tribulations of transporting the sculpture from France to England during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Suhail Shaikh’s Spitfire was the centrepiece of the ‘Courage and Devotion’ exhibition, which took place at The Atkinson from 26th June 2021 until 12th March 2022.
His ‘moment in time’ sculpture shows the exact moment, height and speed of the Spitfire being flown in 1942 by Polish pilot Sergeant Jerzy Stanislaw Zielinsky of the 308 Krakowski Squadron based at RAF Woodvale as it intercepted and shot down a Dornier German bomber off the coast of Southport.
The exhibition and the Spitfire artwork, which told the story of the courageous Polish people and their allies fighting bravely in the face of invasion from a brutal Nazi dictatorship, was made even more emotive by the subsequent invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
When the display ended, it was not known what the future held for the Spitfire sculpture.
But the managers at The Atkinson have now suspended the artwork from the high ceiling in the centre, above the stairs, so that it creates a stunning sight for anyone walking to enjoy exhibitions, shows or the museum on the upper floors.
Joanne Chamberlain, the Heritage & Participation Officer at The Atkinson in Southport, said: “Courage & Devotion was an incredibly special exhibition that so many people took to their hearts and it was emotionally hard to take down at the end of its run.
“Finding a new place for the Spitfire in The Atkinson means that it has a legacy that can continue to tell the story of the Polish airmen who gave so much to help keep this country free.”
Suhail Shaikh is originally from India, but has been living in France for the past 22 years.
Making sculptures out of paper is something he has done since he was a child.
The artist has two huge passions in his life to which he devotes nearly every waking hour – paper and aviation.
His stunning Spitfire sculpture at The Atkinson was the perfect chance to combine the two, recreating the world’s most iconic aircraft in a truly unique way.
He said: “Every time I get the chance to build shapes and to do it with an aviation theme, I go for it.
“My Spitfire sculpture is made entirely of paper and its derivatives, such as cardboard. There is no wood involved.
“That is the challenge. To make something so big, that can take the load when you suspend it from the ceiling at The Atkinson.
“The only things not made from paper are the propeller and the cockpit, which has been specially moulded from Perspex.
“The aircraft was suspended from the ceiling as though it is banking to the right to intercept the German bomber. The ailerons were titled at the correct angle and other details like that were in place. It is the sort of thing that aircraft enthusiasts and former pilots would always pick up on, so it had to be right!”
For Suhail, working on such an iconic design as The Spitfire – the most famous aircraft in the world – was a joy.
He said: “The Spitfire is a ‘plane that never goes unnoticed. Its proportions are just so perfect. It is one of the most sought-after shapes.
“The Spitfire does embody the crowning moment of the Royal Air Force when it defended Britain at such a trying time, when it was so close to being invaded and defeated by the Nazis.
“After The Battle Of France in 1940, the RAF was left very bruised, but Spitfire and Hurricane pilots from all over the world came together to fight again in The Battle Of Britain.
“Pilots and ground crews of all nationalities fought together as a team.”
Britain faced a grim struggle for survival during World War II, most notably during The Battle Of Britain, when the Luftwaffe laid siege in overwhelming numbers.
Britain survived by the skin of its teeth – in no small part thanks to the Polish fighter pilots who swelled the RAF’s numbers at such a critical time.
Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, who was initially reluctant to allow Polish pilots into battle, said: “Had it not been for the magnificent work of the Polish squadrons and their unsurpassed gallantry, I hesitate to say that the outcome of battle would have been the same.”
Polish airmen downed a remarkable 203 German aircraft in The Battle of Britain alone, with 35 probables and 36 damaged.
Such a feat could not be achieved without a price. Twenty nine Polish pilots lost their lives in combat during those grim days in 1940.
The 1,903 personnel killed throughout the war are today commemorated on the Polish War Memorial at RAF Northolt. Many of these pilots served at RAF Woodvale.
Suhail Shaikh said: “The Polish pilots had already seen their country invaded by the Nazis, they had lost friends and comrades, they had left family behind, they had lost everything.
“So they fought, with nothing to lose.”
So it was incredibly important to Suhail that creating his Spitfire sculpture fully embodied the emotional story behind it.
He said: “I wanted to build not just a model, but to be able to tell a story.
“This Spitfire is all about a moment in time, 12.45pm on 21st February, 1941. It shows Spitfire Vb AB273 being flown by Polish pilot Sergeant Jerzy Stanislaw Zielinsky of 308 Krakowski Squadron, banking right as it pursues and shoots down a Dornier bomber spotted off the coast of Southport.
“The control panels inside the sculpture are set at that exact moment, with the altimeter reading an altitude of 10,000ft, with a speed of 160 knots.
“It captures the moment when Sergeant Zielinsky has attacked an enemy ‘plane.
“I wanted to move away from creating an object to creating an historical moment.”
With two confirmed kills, one probable and three severely damaged to his credit, Sgt Zielinsky was awarded the Croix de Valeur and Bar. Sadly, he crashed three months later on the 26th of May while flying a Miles Magister at High Ercall.
The Spitfire sculpture in his memory at the Atkinson represents a fitting tribute to the courage and devotion of a truly brave human being and the comrades he flew alongside.